Ann M Ponath
“Wy wow is tha dast enb wy beb is too.” (“My mom is the best and my dad is too.”) So began my student Evan Valleau’s class presentation on dyslexia. But Evan wasn’t fulfilling a public speaking requirement. In fact, he had actually volunteered to give a speech explaining this learning disability to a class that, with the exception of two students, didn’t even realize what Evan was about to reveal.
Evan was one of those students that made teaching easy. Even as an eighth grader, this tall redhead was generally happy, respectful, kind and easy-going. He was also smart. But Evan didn’t feel smart. Underneath the smile, Evan was struggling. He did not like school; he thought he was “stupid” and used the “dumb jock stereotype” to cover his feelings. Evan’s mother, Rebecca, said he was often angry because school seemed easy for others while he spent hours on homework. Even though he was good in math, word problems were very difficult and he didn’t take Algebra in eighth grade, lacking the self-confidence to tackle it. Sadly, Evan was also bullied by some of his classmates.
At parent-teacher conferences in November, Evan’s parents and I discussed his struggles. Evan’s two older sisters had breezed through my Language Arts and Music classes, but Evan was having so much trouble and his writing was below grade level. I am not a special education teacher, but my instincts were telling me that something was off. Maybe testing would give some answers and help Evan, especially with high school in the near future?
In February Evan was tested. I still remember the day he hung back after his classmates filed out of the room. “I’m dyslexic,” he told me with a huge smile on his face. Rebecca explained later that he was so excited to hear this diagnosis, to understand that he was not “stupid,” that there was a reason assignments were so difficult, and that there were ways for him to compensate and succeed in school.
In March and continuing for the next year and a half, Rebecca trained herself and tutored Evan two hours a week, covering eight and a half levels of the Orton Gillingham system. According to the Institute for Multi-Sensory Education, Orton Gillingham is “the first approach to use explicit, direct, sequential, systematic, multi-sensory instruction to teach reading, which is not only effective for all students but essential for students with dyslexia.” According to Rebecca, this system basically “breaks down the rules of English and beats them to death.” In addition to proving to be very beneficial for Evan, these hours were fun for mother and son. Sometimes they’d just “sit there laughing.” To this day, Evan says, “I’ll be randomly writing and then I’ll remember a rule. It takes me back to sitting with Mom and tutoring.”
Following his diagnosis, accommodations such as more test time, a reduced spelling list and individualized writing lessons helped Evan feel better about school and gain confidence. Teachers had been providing some of these accommodations before, but the diagnosis helped. Evan says, “It took a while to change the way of learning and to get over hating school,” but he felt as if he had “more control and a different perspective.” Professor Kelli Green, a professor of special education at Martin Luther College, also helped evaluate Evan’s writing and provided writing mini-lesson ideas.
When Evan’s older sister created a presentation on dyslexia for a high school speech class, Evan asked if he could use it to help his seventh and eighth-grade class understand dyslexia and explain his struggles. He added two slides about how dyslexia affected him personally and then surprised the class with the presentation and the news that Einstein, Prince Harry, Henry Ford and he were all dyslexic. Mom Rebecca came too, armed with treats. It was an explanation and a celebration and not without a few quiet tears from the teacher watching this very brave student from her desk.
Now a senior at St. Croix Lutheran Academy in West St. Paul, Minnesota, Evan is thriving. Because of the diagnosis and training, high school is easier. Each year, SCLA’s Learning Resource Center coordinator, Lorna Kapanke, creates a learning plan. Evan meets with all of his teachers to talk about his strengths and weaknesses and how learning accommodations can be made, especially when reading is not the goal. Any test, including the PSAT, can be read to Evan and voice-to-text tools are used for writing assignments. “Some days are fine, and I can focus,” says Evan, “but some days I can’t.” Knowing the reason some days are like this makes all the difference. And with his new study skills, Evan also has time for football, basketball, baseball, Croixaliers, New Friends and Night To Shine. Because he loves being outside and working with his hands, Evan is considering a technical college after high school, learning a trade like plumbing, electrical work or carpentry.
Looking back, Evan and Rebecca say a teacher who shows individual attention, kindness, “someone who doesn’t give up on the student” and “who doesn’t take the student’s frustration at learning personally” is important. When mistakes happen, “forgive and move on,” says Rebecca, “so the student can go back to not feeling like a failure.” Also, remember that parents are the greatest advocates for their students.
As a general classroom teacher, my takeaways are these: trust your instincts, ask questions and don’t be afraid to communicate with your students and his or her parents, then learn all you can in order to help your student. “The fact that you took the time to tutor Evan was really important to him. He did learn some from it, but more importantly, it affected his self-esteem, that someone took the time to invest in him,” says Rebecca.
Evan says, “It was a big deal.” Seeing a struggling student succeed and truly smile was definitely a big deal and a blessing for Evan’s parents and teachers too!
Ann M. Ponath has served as a teacher, church musician and worship coordinator at Christ Lutheran Church and School, North. St. Paul and Hugo, Minnesota, since graduating from Martin Luther College in 1991. She and her husband, David, are blessed with four children, two daughters-in-law, one grandchild and one yellow and white Lab mix.